Ancient humans may have worn shoes more than 100,000 years ago

Three archaeological sites in South Africa feature impressions that might have been made by ancient footwear, but pinpointing when humans first wore shoes is challenging.

Humans may have been wearing shoes for well over 100,000 years, and other hominins like Neanderthals may also have worn footwear. The suggestion stems from the discovery of unusual preserved footprints in South Africa, which may have been made by people wearing sandals.

Possible ancient footprints at Kleinkrantz, South Africa
Charles Helm

“We’re not claiming we have conclusive evidence of this,” says Charles Helm at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha, South Africa. Instead, Helm and his colleagues want to figure out how to reliably distinguish footprints left by bare and shod feet.

Helm’s team studied three sites along the southern coast of South Africa, each of which has what appear to be preserved footprints.

One site is at Kleinkrantz in Garden Route National Park. Helm’s team found a slab of rock 55 centimetres across. It has at least two well-preserved footprints, plus two other impressions that might be prints. The two best footprints have extremely clean edges and no sign of details like toes, which is suggestive of shod feet. One of them also has three small divots, which could be where straps were attached to the sole of the footwear.

In addition, the team found a slab of rock in Addo Elephant National Park. It has four tracks, one of which is partial, with no toe marks. They also redescribed a slab of rock from Goukamma Nature Reserve, which has four tracks. Three have crisp edges and no signs of toes.

Helm concedes that it is difficult to be sure if the marks are indeed footprints. Normally, human footprints are identified using details like the arch of the foot and the marks left by the toes. “With shod hominin tracks, that’s exactly what you’re not going to get,” he says.

To bolster the case, the team created simple sandals of their own, based on examples of those worn by the Indigenous San people of southern Africa. They glued together two layers of cowhide to make the sole. Then they punched three holes in it, and threaded laces made of cowhide through to make straps.

When a team member walked in these sandals over a wet sand dune, they left footprints similar to those at Kleinkrantz: with no sign of toes or arches, and three small divots per footprint where the straps were attached.

“These findings form an important baseline,” says Ashleigh Wiseman at the University of Cambridge.

Uncertain dates

There is some uncertainty over the ages of the trackways. Rocks near the Kleinkrantz slab have been dated to between 79,000 and 148,000 years ago, while samples near the Goukamma slab are 73,000 to 136,000 years old. “It would be good for the sites to be directly dated,” says Wiseman.

“I think the authors are very honest, because they don’t claim the footprints were made by shod individuals,” says Jérémy Duveau at the University of Tübingen in Germany. “They just claim it’s a possibility and it’s not certain.”

A core issue is that prehistoric footwear would have been made of soft materials like leather. “The items that would have been used to make shoes and footwear would have perished almost certainly,” says Helm.

As a result, we have very little evidence of shoes in the archaeological record, says Duveau. The oldest known items of footwear are sandals found in Fort Rock cave in Oregon, dated to just 9200 to 10,500 years ago. More recent examples include a shoe from Areni-1 cave in Armenia that was dated to 3377 to 3627 BC.

There are also a handful of sites where researchers have identified footprints like those in South Africa, which look like they were made with shoes. In a 2021 study, researchers led by Lysianna Ledoux, then at the University of Cantabria in Santander, Spain, identified apparent shod footprints in Cussac cave in south-west France. The tracks were 28,000 to 31,000 years old.

Another 2021 study found similar footprints in Theopetra cave in Greece, close to 135,000-year-old rocks. If the tracks are similarly old, they may have been made by shod Neanderthals.

Finally, some researchers have looked for other kinds of evidence. Erik Trinkaus at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, has published studies of human foot bones, which he argues have been subtly reshaped by wearing footwear since as early as 40,000 years ago. Others have examined the tools people used, in a bid to find out when the equipment needed to make footwear – and clothing in general – was available.

The datapoints are scattered in both time and space, so it isn’t currently possible to reconstruct prehistoric peoples’ footwear habits, says Helm. All we can say is that evidence of footwear seems to be confined to the past 140,000 years or so. “I don’t think we’re going further back than that,” he says.

Journal reference:

IchnosDOI: 10.1080/10420940.2023.2249585

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